What are the features of characterization in the "General Prologue" of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There are five different methods of, or features to, characterization: physical traits, actions/attitudes, inner thoughts, other characters' reactions, and things the character says. These five different features can be revealed through two different methods of characterization: direct and indirect. In direct characterization, the narrator comes out and describes the character to the reader. In indirect characterization, the reader gleans a sense of what the character is like as a person through things the character says and does, plus through other characters' reactions to the character. In Geoffrey Chaucer's "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales, the narrator uses only the method of direct characterization to describe each character. Each characterization also incorporates all five of the above features.

Looking at the knight as an example, we see that the first thing the narrator does is describe the knight's attitudes. More specifically, we learn that he "loved honor, chivalry, / The spirit of giving, truth and courtesy"--all things that a knight is expected to love and to exemplify. The narrator next goes into a description of the knight's actions by describing him as a "valiant warrior," naming all of the lands he has traveled to fight in the name of Christendom, and stating that "[n]o other noble Christian fought so well." The narrator further describes the knight's actions by describing that he always acted rightly, gently, and spoke kindly. The narrator ends with a physical description of the knight by depicting him wearing a rusted fustian tunic.

As the characterizations continue, we begin to notice that they become contradictory, which helps establish the satirical nature of the book. For example, the monk is described as being richly clad in fur and jewels, which contradicts the traditional role of a monk--to live in humility and poverty so that all may be given to others. In addition, the friar is described as being a "wanton one and merry," which can be understood to mean that he is sexually unrestrained and happy, whereas a friar normally should not be sexually unrestrained because such behavior breaks the vow of chastity. Such characterizations serve to develop Chaucer's dominant theme of corruption within the church.

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